How Milwaukee Brewers Have Learned from Legacy of Payroll Mishaps

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | Finally, the savior had arrived. On January 13, 2005, the sale of the Milwaukee Brewers was approved to a California-based investment banker named Mark Attanasio.

For the previous 35 years, the Brewers were under the ownership of the Selig family, and it was current MLB commissioner Bud Selig who returned baseball to Milwaukee in 1970 after the city lost its previous franchise, the Braves, to Atlanta.

When Selig assumed commissioner duties in 1992, he was forced to transfer ownership over to his daughter in order to avoid any conflict of interest and while fans will always be grateful for what Selig did, the team became a symbol of obscurity, failing to compile a winning season under Wendy Selig-Prieb. Dating back to her ownership, the Brewers failed cracked the top 20 of MLB payrolls -- or even come close. In her final season as Milwaukee's owner, the Brewers had the lowest payroll in all of baseball at just $27.5 million.

Playing in one of baseball's smallest markets has its limitations. Appealing to big-name free agents, putting butts in the seats, and, most of all, having an owner with deep pockets are objectives more easily fulfilled in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. But Milwaukee? A city notoriously associated with losing?

Throughout the team's 43 years of existence, the Brewers have only reached the World Series once, the playoffs four times. That's a pretty ruthless past, and dragging the franchise and its fans through the mud for 13 years prior to Attanasio's purchase didn't exactly lighten the mood.

Simpler times

To achieve success in baseball, you don't necessarily need to build through the draft. You can open up the checkbook for the top free agents, likewise to lock up your best players. You can pick superstars from cellar dwellers in return for prospects, but only if you're in a position to win "now." None of those options have made themselves available to the Brewers for the vast majority of their existence.

The Brewers' success in the early-'80s was the result of assembling a solid core both through the draft (Robin Yount, Paul Molitor) and via trade (Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie) in the late-'70s, and then once becoming a contender, swapping prospects for key players (Rollie Fingers, Pete Vuckovich, Don Sutton). Selig willing to dish out some cheese was certainly important to building a World Series contender, but it was also general manager Harry Dalton who was largely responsible for the period of success Milwaukee enjoyed in the late-'70s and early-'80s.

Dalton hit all the right buttons during this short-lived breakthrough, but the Brewers were unable to sustain success due to a string of unfortunate injuries, only making the playoffs twice under the Seligs' ownership. Back in the early existence of the Brewers, money simply wasn't as much of a factor as it is today, but contract inflation didn't take long to catch up to a team like Milwaukee. In 1970, the Brewers' inaugural season, the average player salary was a mere $29,303, making for a much more even playing field. By the time Bud passed ownership over to his daughter, this number had just surpassed $1 million and what was left of the Brewers' core was on its way out of Milwaukee.

Bidding wars

Prior to the 1976 season, free agency was implemented into baseball, and this inclusion would eventually catch up to a small-market team like Milwaukee. Thankfully, for the Brewers, they were in the process of building a core through draft and trade as mentioned above, and the effects of free agency were yet to hinder Milwaukee. But it was evident that the amount of spending would eventually have an impact as the average salary jumped from $51,501 to $76,066 in just one year following the arrival of free agency.

While free agency also became an important part of the NFL and NBA, those sports also featured a salary cap, which allowed parity between larger markets and smaller markets. Such is not the case in baseball, giving the Brewers a rather glaring handicap, especially following the transfer of ownership and the departure of the players who had made Milwaukee successful. Combine that with bidding wars continuing to grow exponentially throughout the '80s and '90s, and the perfect storm was brewing.

Mission impossible

With the Brewers' significant financial disadvantage correlating with an inexperienced owner, it was going to take near perfection to build a contender once again -- perfection the Brewers came nowhere close to achieving. Former Brewers player Sal Bando replaced Dalton as general manager in 1991, and his 8-year tenure can be defined by one move: allowing Paul Molitor to depart via free agency. He also acquired Marquis Grissom, whose OPS didn't break .700 in his three years with Milwaukee. But that didn't stop him from making $5 million a year.

The penny-pinching and poor management was also evident under general manager Dean Taylor, highlighted by the egregious signing of Jeffrey Hammonds (3 years, $21.75 million). While Bando and Taylor had their moments, they weren't in a position to make a big splash through trade or free agency due to a lack of funding. When acquiring Jeromy Burnitz for Kevin Seitzer goes down as your top transaction from 1991-2002, there are clearly some restrictions placed on your club, but a failure to develop any semblance to pitching while missing time and time again in the draft didn't do Bando and Taylor any favors.

The stars align

It was desperately time for change. A fan base with a brand new ballpark was rapidly losing interest, and the Brewers hadn't experienced a winning season since 1992. Prior to the 2003 season, the Brewers received their first significant overhaul when Doug Melvin was hired to be the team's new general manager. Melvin, surrounded with bright minds like Jack Zduriencik and Gord Ash, made an immediate splash by selecting Rickie Weeks in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, followed by first-round draft picks like Ryan Braun, Matt LaPorta and Brett Lawrie.

Beginning with Prince Fielder in 2002, the Brewers' first-round selections up to 2008 have all been a vital part of the team's success. Braun, Weeks and Fielder were instrumental in leading the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in 26 years, while prospects were involved in trades that brought big names to Milwaukee (C.C. Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum). A huge reason for a return to prominence was the new-found success the Brewers experienced in the draft. But there was one final piece to the puzzle: money.

No matter how well a team drafts, it needs the funds to retain those players, or at least delay their departure. Two years after Melvin's arrival, that coveted final puzzle piece came in the form of Mark Attanasio, and the Brewers watched their payroll rise $13 million, then $17 million, then $13 million. Finally, Milwaukee had money. But money was an unfamiliar commodity. How would Melvin and Co. make use of it?

With a core like Braun, Fielder, Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart -- and eventually Yovani Gallardo -- Melvin wanted to build on what he already had at Milwaukee, and that was going to come with a rather harsh learning curve. What Melvin had accomplished through the draft, and would eventually gain by means of trade, wouldn't translate to how he spent.

Nobody's perfect

After a breakout season in which he hit 35 HRs and 85 RBIs, Melvin signed Bill Hall to a 4-year, $24 million contract before the 2007 season. That move was preceded by the heavily scrutinized deal handed to Jeff Suppan, who would make $46 million over four years. In another attempt to reel in a free-agent starting pitcher, veteran Randy Wolf was signed to a 3-year, $29.75 million deal before the 2010 season. Most recently, in 2011, Weeks was signed to a contract extension of the 4-year, $38 million variety.

So why didn't these acquisitions pan out? In the case of Hall, Weeks and Suppan, all were coming off excellent seasons, but Hall had burst onto the scene, and it was the only good season Weeks had put together in his injury-riddled career. Suppan, the National League Championship Series MVP in '06, had just one season prior to '07 with an ERA below 4.00. Melvin jumped the gun on all three instances, taking unnecessary risks by locking up Weeks and Hall while allowing himself to be brainwashed by Suppan's miraculous postseason performance with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even Randy Wolf, who managed to put together a few respectable years with Milwaukee, eventually began to conflict with Milwaukee's desire to use its younger arms. He was released during the 2012 season as a result as he struggled to pitch effectively. Just because Melvin had the available funds didn't mean he needed to spend it, especially on players who weren't worthy of such money.

Balancing the checkbook

After gradually building up to the $80 million mark in payroll by 2008, it was clear Attanasio was testing his spending threshold. Even as an owner with an estimated net worth of $700 million, Attanasio falls $400 million shy of the 10th richest owner in baseball, Robert Nutting of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Speaking of 10th, that's exactly where Milwaukee ranked in payroll entering the 2012 season -- a staggering $97.7 million.

The Brewers were coming off one of the most successful seasons in franchise history, reaching the NLCS before bowing out to the Cardinals. They were stacked with hefty contracts that would soon become unwelcome -- Francisco Rodriguez, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum, most notably. Even Rickie Weeks' contract had become a burden. "Outsiders" in the rotation like Wolf and Marcum were not only restraining young talent but also payroll. Milwaukee had an owner with money, yes, but it also had an owner with a budget, and understandably so as the Brewers wanted to maintain financial flexibility for the future.

While there's something to be said about going for it all and surpassing that budget, something the Brewers did in 2012 according to Melvin, it still comes down to one inevitable dilemma: The Brewers play in Milwaukee. In turn, they don't have one of the richest owners in baseball, and they don't have the money to compete for top free agents. Revenue is generated from tickets and merchandise, especially when reaching the postseason. But these days, it comes down to having a lucrative television deal, something hard to come by in a city like Milwaukee that can't generate the same viewership as in larger markets. It's just a reality.

You live and you learn

Rickie Weeks' undeserving, expensive long-term deal was the final point in the Brewers' learning curve since Attanasio purchased the Brewers in 2005. The Brewers will decrease their payroll by roughly 20 percent -- returning to Attanasio's comfort level of around $80 million -- heading into the 2013 season. They will allow Yovani Gallardo, a homegrown talent, to be the team's ace, and they will give more homegrown talent -- Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers -- a chance to fill out the rotation.

Because why overpay for a starter on the market if he isn't top-tier? And why jump the gun on signing players to extensions? Teams all over the league, especially those at a financial disadvantage like the Brewers once were (and in a way, still are), are crunching numbers more than ever to save money on bargain players, so why shouldn't the Brewers do the same? Milwaukee made the right call when it came to Braun, Fielder, Hart and Gallardo, allowing them to prove themselves over multiple seasons before handing out extensions. Weeks didn't prove himself, and he didn't stay healthy, and those warning signs were ignored. He's now the most glaring eyesore on the Brewers' payroll.

But that deal was made two years ago, and Melvin has moved on. He and Attanasio have an effective game plan, and they've executed it with signings like Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins and Aramis Ramirez in the past two years. Brewers fans may be frustrated by the cut in spending this offseason, but to learn from this history lesson is to realize Milwaukee is doing all it can do, and in a sense, all it needs to.

Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.

You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.
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